AMES, Iowa – In a year with many challenges and setbacks, volunteers with the Master Gardener program at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach continued to serve their communities with donated produce.
This year’s Growing Together Mini Grant recipients – 29 recipients in 30 counties – managed to grow and donate more than 80,000 pounds of produce in 2020, despite the impacts of COVID-19 and the derecho in August.
“You never truly know how many people your efforts reach, but as the year went on, we kept hearing more and more good reports from the food pantries,” said Greg Walston, county program director for ISU Extension and Outreach in Benton County.
Walston said the damaging winds from the derecho definitely put volunteers to the test, but they worked together to overcome the challenge.
“We had quite a few of what we call ‘pop-up’ food pantries because of the derecho, but we were able to respond to fill their needs,” he said.
As many as 55-70 volunteers worked together in Benton County, under the nonprofit Old School Produce Partners. The group donated produce to an estimated 3,100 households and 6,100 people in Benton and Iowa counties.
Coincidentally, this was the first year that the Benton County volunteers operated as a full donation garden, doing away with sales from the Community Supported Agriculture program.
Walston said this increased the amount of food available for donation in a year when it was much needed.
“It seemed like we had support when we needed it,” he said. “Our volunteers and our master gardeners all just kind of persevered and worked together to meet the needs of the community and supply additional produce.”
The same level of determination was seen in Jasper County, where Carol Camp, program coordinator with ISU Extension and Outreach, oversaw an effort that resulted in 1,150 pounds of donated produce.
Camp said this was the first year volunteers experimented with using vertical arched tunnels to grow produce – in an effort to increase production – and that results were promising. Total production was up 100 pounds, but more importantly, she credits the quality of their vertical structures for saving the crop during the derecho.
“We were very surprised that we didn’t have a lot of structural damage to our gardening setup,” she said. “Many people in our area lost their entire garden from the derecho and our sturdy cattle panels helped the plants resist the worst of the storm.”
Camp said volunteers rose to the occasion and made sure their communities were served.
“The local economic impact of COVID-19 resulted in more families than ever struggling with food security issues,” she said. “Our mission of feeding those in need felt even more important after Newton took a direct hit from the derecho in August.”
Interesting facts about 2020
- The mini grants have been given for five years (2016-2020) – pounds donated over the past five years by funded mini grants: 434,729 pounds.
- 40% of the projects experienced some damage to donation gardens due to the derecho in August, but most was minor damage (infrastructure did not suffer).
- 239 Master Gardener volunteers were involved in 2020 along with 430 individual partners.
- Estimated reach of produce donations through donation sites: 66,086 individuals.
- Donation sites increased in 2020 to 103 sites, compared to 76 in 2019.
- 1,016 low-income individuals received direct gardening and produce preparation education.
- The projects leveraged an additional $22,000 in funding.
Original photo: master gardeners